walden bello

I was 18 years old and in my third year of college at the University of the Philippines when, looking for a subject to take as my elective, I came across a course called Sociology 197: Special Topics.

The special topic was called The Political Economy of Newly-Industrializing Countries. The year was 1994, just five years after Glasnost and Perestroika and U.S.S.R had bowed out of the geography lexicon. The political climate was optimistic but carried with it an air of great uncertainty.

It was also a time of great cluelessness in my personal life. I’d just switched my major from Linguistics to Journalism the year before and wasn’t doing well in either. While I had good English grammar and could write fairly well, I didn’t have any deep passions or interests to write about. This put me right in sync with the directionless world at large.

Sociology was a subject I had some interest in.  I had taken up Sociology 101 the year before and got interested, not really in the subject itself, but in my reaction to it. One of my course readings told the classic story of the woman who was attacked while on her way back to her apartment, and her neighbors, upon hearing her screams, came out of their balconies and just watched. Realizing that no one was going to help her, her attacker came back and stabbed her a few more times until she was dead.  I was horrified and wanted to continue feeling horrified, because it was such an intense feeling. As a college kid, I was so numb and dumb that I couldn’t be stimulated by anything less than real-life horror stories.

I had run out of Sociology horror subjects to choose from, and was actually going from classroom to classroom to enlist in my subjects, asking professors to sign me up, else I couldn’t graduate on time and make my financiers very mad indeed. Sociology 197 was a last-ditch effort for me to keep the required academic load. I thought The Political Economy Of Newly-Industrializing Countries sounded fartly high-falutin, not terrifying, to my ears. What the hell is Political Economy anyway? Is it when politicians travelling by plane take Economy class? But there were relatively fewer students signing up for the course, so that’s how I ended up in Professor Walden Bello’s class.

Professor Bello was this wiry, somewhat tubercular figure with a pair of penetrating eyes behind thinly black-rimmed spectacles. He had this black bag you would mistake for a laptop bag nowadays, but instead of a laptop it contained reams of text-filled paper, and maybe one book or two. He always wore subdued-colored polo shirts and slacks – the loudest I’ve seen him go was a printed polo shirt in black and white – but his views were far from neutral. He had already written several books on Political Economy but made one of them –Dragons In Distress: Asia’s Miracle Economies In Crisis – required reading for the course.

I didn’t understand his book. I didn’t understand anything he said. It was my fault – I didn’t really have the prerequisites to understanding the subject. I knew that I should’ve taken up Economics 101 first to gain some fundamental knowledge of how world economies operate. The faith that Professor Bello had invested in my intellectual ability to successfully navigate his course was incredibly touching. Well, I was an Iskolar Ng Bayan after all, right? Ahm, no.

In the end, I still don’t know how I managed to get 2.25 (an equivalent of B minus) in his course. I think I was able to deploy my writing skills and ability to memorize large swaths of his book to good use during the final exam.

I am writing this little memoir today after leafing through the latest issue of #Jacobin. Look up Jacobin, guys. You will be farting not one, but several times, as you leaf through its highfalutin’ pages.

To be clear, Professor Bello is not featured in an article there, nor did he write one for the magazine. But there was a small ad about his latest book, which made me proud. You don’t really see a lot of Filipino intellectuals’ names in Jacobin. Not that anyone would care –

But I do.

I am living eleven thousand kilometers away from the Philippines, in a society where thinking deeply and living profoundly is a way of life. Here, everything is taken seriously. You are not treated like a nut case for suffering an allergy to nuts. Here, public transit and garbage collection are jaw-dropping in their efficiency. The homeless are Shakespearean in their eloquence when soliciting your generosity. So as not to embarrass myself, I always have some change in my pocket to hand out to these street orators.

And this is why I am finally getting you, Professor Bello. I have been in need of some relatable social capital in America for some time now and seeing your name got my hopes up again. I realize I had been suffering from myopia in 1994, but in 2020, I finally got my vision corrected (pun intended). I now understand how international financial institutions can become a proxy for nations to control other nations through their economies. You’d warned us of the power of multinational corporations and how we have sacrificed much of our potential to have a better quality of life by remaining blissfully clueless about how these monoliths operate. You have been kicked out of offices for all your snooping around looking for hard data about how much wealth and power these CEOs and COOs are keeping to themselves.  This is the narrative that you presented to us in 1994, and it is unbelievable how relevant it still is today.

I am happy to say I am no longer as clueless as I once was, Professor Bello. I am just awfully slow to get it. I had a lot of living to get through in between, after all. But now, I am hungry to learn more. When the public libraries here reopen, I will be all too happy to rediscover what I’d lost – or thought I’d lost – back in 1994.